The 1850s: Before the Storm

printed in the Penn Yan Democrat
7 March 1855:

Penn Yan lies at the bottom of the surrounding hills, not a slumbering nest egg, but a flourishing, ambitious, and, at most seasons of the year, delightful and enviable village, remarkable for its pleasant avenues, tasteful residences, and extensively known for its surpassingly beautiful ladies. At this period of the year, when the garb of stern winter yields beneath the warm rays of a March sun, and the genial zephyrs of a south wind tainted are with Keuka's ice bound realms, our village presents an aspect cheerful and full of becoming pride to its present rulers.

A stranger upon seeing the many told beauties of our corporation, and accordingly started out for a stroll thro' the principal highways and by-places of the village - reappeared in a short time and asked of a resident the loan of his Directory and Stranger's Guide, reporting himself as such. Not comprehending the request, resident stared apace. Oldest inhabitant (large boy - 6 years old), standing near, presented him with required commodity, of which I purposely obtained a copy, and tender it to the public in general. It is as follows:

"Main Street and its several places of business, churches, etc. - the best possible means of reaching each, of which I'll notice a few: Yates County Bank. (From Hotel), go south as far as Crane's Shoe Store - procure a pair of gutta-percha hunting boots with high legs, proceed to ford the gutter opposite Jones and Eels; on east side, jump from middle of street over a narrow stream known as the junction of Main and Elm Street rivers; from thence take a northerly course, keeping well to the right of the walk to avoid knocking off the corners of the iron architect erected at the entrance of the basement stories of the Bradley & Sheppard's block. If you slip down and hurt the pavement at this point, step in to Messrs. Adams & Ford and apologize to the latter for unintentionally breaking off the ice in your fall. By drawing on the boots to the farthest extent, you will now be able to reach the aforesaid Bank. This is at present the shortest route, until sufficient warm weather shall have opened the proper course for gutter water.

Post Office. No route laid down. At present it is only accessible from the rear by School Alley. The valentine speculation fund not sufficient to enable Uncle Sam's agent to draw off the lake upon whose western shore the Post Office is so pleasantly situated, shows a decline of the affections among the feathered tribe this year.

The most expedient route to the Presbyterian Church: Obtain the middle of the road at the first given point, proceed in a northerly direction this track, to the most convenient place (there is no choice) where by gymnastic evolutions you can gain the side walk on the right, which will be found navigable on foot as far as the point nearly opposite the residence of the ebony auction cryer: i.e. "Abe", No. 99 1/2 Main Street, Penn Yan, second door below the Baptist Church. Here you have your choice, to "sink or swim," or obtain permission to pass through Messrs. Gilbert & Bales door-yard and scale the fence into E.B. Jones' lot, passing out of the southern gate, just two and a half feet above the immense body of water formed by the overflowing of the gutter, and the inundation of the crossing opposite "B. Church." You may reach the church without much more serious difficulty. All points below this attainable by similar methods."

N.B. A new and revised edition of the work is being issued by our "City Fathers," who (thanks to the liquor trade) have several worthless executions ... making a surplus in the treasury sufficient to bear them out in enforcing the ordinance of our village. We look for better traveling when this appears.



ooking back nowadays, it seems impossible that no one foresaw the disaster that was to occur at the end of this decade. The village absolutely foresaw its future as the metropolis of the grain belt, and preserved a cheerful and jingoistic certainty that they lived in the best place in the best country in the world.

George F. Hamlin, writing nearly 20 years later from his home in New York City, described Penn Yan as it was in 1850. He remembered "three or four stores" at the head of Main Street, and Morris F. Sheppard's stone residence, among some others above the Court House.

"The Penn Yan Academy was a two-story unpainted wooden structure abandoned and disgraceful," he wrote. He was speaking of the first Academy, which had been held in Eliah Holcomb's old hotel building, just south of Court Street on the east side of Main. Then came the residences of Judge Samuel S. Ellsworth and of Nelson Tunnicliff (on the corner of Clinton Street), and the Curtis Hill from Main Street east, which the village children took over on snowy days for coasting. Dr. William Oliver's house stood on the west side of Main.

Below Chapel Street were the residences of Myron Hamlin, Leander Reddy and Judge William M. Oliver, in a row on the west side of Main. Across the street were George Benham's house, the Yates County Bank and the American Hotel. North of Benham's was the boarding house kept by Sarah Cobb and her daughters; the dam behind Benham's, used to run his tannery, of course froze over in the winter and was a favorite place for skating.

By 1856 a meat market called Wyman's stood on the west side of Main Street about halfway between Elm Street and Maiden Lane. The block was bought by Myron Hamlin, extended to the rear about 50 feet and outfitted in a manner then considered palatial. The location, said Cleveland, was thought to be "pretty well out of town for dry goods," as it was the farthest north of any of them.

In the same year a balloon ascension was made from the vacant lot just north of Wyman's, which was surrounded by a high wooden fence and reached north as far as Maiden Lane. People remembered the row of barrells along the walk, filled with iron filings, which were used to make the gas. The balloon ascended quite slowly and just missed hitting Wyman's north wall, but otherwise the whole affair was a rousing success.

All during this period, ominous signs appeared but perhaps seemed of little local importance. Three of the village's four Protestant congregations (there were no others until St. Michael's was organized in 1855) had split in two over the issue of slavery and its abolition. The antislavery Methodists built the Wesleyan Meeting House in 1851; the majority of the Presbyterians left with their minister Ovid Minor to start a Congregationalist Church; and the Episcopalians split into two groups, one of which started to build a new church which was never finished until after the congregation was reunited and they all moved into it. Only the Baptists, whose split over slavery had happened on the national level, were exempt locally from the uproar.

Many of the "best" residents of Penn Yan clung to the old Whig party until the Republicans were founded in 1856. The new party's first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, actually carried the county that fall, and the rapid evolution of Yates County into the most Republican in the state of New York came to pass. A bitter division opened between the Republicans and the Irish, who nearly all voted Democratic and were furthermore "wet" in a place where temperance had long drawn a great many followers. Temperance and abolition were the favorite local reform movements, and naturally the descendants of early settlers were very uncomfortable with the boisterous Irish laborers that swarmed into town after 1850. Both sides shipped arms to Kansas later in the decade, in a precursor of the larger but not much more acrimonious conflict to follow.

A severe nationwide depression struck in 1857, resulting in a run on the Yates County Bank that destroyed it, and with it the fortunes of a number of local people, not least of whom was the Bank's president, William M. Oliver; everyone agreed that the Bank's failure was none of his doing, but his property still had to be sold up to pay off his debts. The place had still not recovered from the loss of its only banking house when after Lincoln's victory in November, 1860, rumbles of war began to be reported from South Carolina. The president-elect of course carried Yates County; he was elected nationally by a minority of the electorate, having beaten three other candidates. He had not run on an abolitionist platform, but local activists nevertheless confidently expected the institution of slavery to destroy itself.